The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012

The viral video campaign reinforces a dangerous, centuries-old idea that Africans are helpless and that idealistic Westerners must save them.

mf mar8 p2.jpg
Staff from Invisible Children direct Africans in a still from their Kony 2012 video / YouTube

The backlash against Kony 2012, a super-popular social media campaign to raise awareness about deranged warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army, has mostly focused on two things. First, the group behind it, Invisible Children, has a poor track record and shady finances; and, second, the campaign's uninformed and almost infantilizing over-simplifications are probably going to do very little beyond raise lots of money and publicity for Invisible Children. But campaigns like this one, and this one especially, can end up doing more harm than good.

Kony 2012 is so seductive for precisely the same reasons that make it so dangerous. The half-hour video, now viewed 40 million times, sets viewers up for a message so gratifying and fulfilling that it is almost impossible to resist: there is a terrible problem in the world, you are the solution, and all you have to do is pass along this video. Unless you're already well-enough informed on Central Africa to see the video's many flaws -- and the vast majority of people, very understandably, are not -- only the most guarded skeptic is going to be able to resist. There's a certain tragedy to that because, as with the sad revelations that Greg Mortenson's book about saving Afghanistan by building schools turned out to be a fabrication, it teaches people to be cynical about activism.

But the damage of Kony 2012 is probably already done, and that damage is real. First, it's likely to actually decrease the amount of help that goes into Central Africa. The video is a joy to watch and spread because it tells Americans that by simply watching a video, and at most maybe buying a $30 "action kit" of wristbands and stickers, they have done all that's necessary; they are absolved of responsibility. How much money has Invisible Children soaked up that could have gone to actually effective campaigns or more experienced NGOs? How many people might have put their energy, which after all is finite, toward something more constructive? As Amanda Taub and Kate Cronin-Furman write, "Campaigns that focus on bracelets and social media absorb resources that could go toward more effective advocacy, and take up rhetorical space that could be used to develop more effective advocacy."

Worst of all, the much-circulated campaign subtly reinforces an idea that has been one of Africa's biggest disasters: that well-meaning Westerners need to come in and fix it. Africans, in this telling, are helpless victims, and Westerners are the heroes. It's part of a long tradition of Western advocacy that has, for centuries, adopted some form of white man's burden, treating African people as cared for only to the extent that Westerners care, their problems solvable only to the extent that Westerners solve them, and surely damned unless we can save them. First it was with missionaries, then "civilizing" missions, and finally the ultimate end of white paternalism, which was placing Africans under the direct Western control of imperialism. And while imperialism may have collapsed 50 years ago, that mentality persists, because it is rewarding and ennobling to feel needed and to believe you are doing something good.

"African solutions for African problems" isn't just a State Department slogan, and it isn't about promoting African leadership, although that's certainly important. Africans are already leaders. There are many reasons for Africa's amazing rise over the last ten years, but one of the biggest has been African leadership. It's not a coincidence that the 200 years of Western leadership in Africa were some of the continent's worst. Africans have proven time and again that they're better at fixing African problems. While helping is always good, and it's great that people care, what Kony 2012 ignores is that Africans are not "invisible" and the last thing they need is for a bunch of Westerners to parachute in and take over (again). We sometimes mistake our position at the top of the global food chain as evidence that we're more capable, that our power will extend into complicated and far-away societies, that we'll be better at fixing their problems than they are. This assumption, both well-meaning and self-glorifying, has led us into disaster after disaster after disaster.

It's good for people to care about Central Africa's problems, as millions more people now do, but not if that caring leads them to do less of consequence, or to do things that make an already-bad situation worse. This is not to say that the video's many sharers are racist or anything less than well-intentioned; a very non-scientific survey of my social media and my friends' suggests that it's the good-hearted, the socially aware, and the thoughtful who are most likely to want to share this video. But there's a reason that the ideas behind imperialism and colonialism found such fertile soil in enlightened Europe, and that it was often Europe's most charitable who led the charge. Kony 2012, and the centuries-old white man's burden of which it is a part, appeals to our highest instincts. But it also exploits them, and whether Invisible Children's leaders are greedy or misguided or just delusional marketing experts out for an adventure, they are steering you wrong. Sometimes good intentions aren't enough.

Update, 1:57pm: Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole has tweeted "seven thoughts" on the Kony 2012 drama and the "banality of sentimentality." It would be impossible to not include them in a discussion of the campaign's cultural undertones:

Cole is not wrong, even if his language is soaked in resentment, that sentimentality has driven some of the Western world's worst abuses, and that behind this sentimentality is an assumption of the rightness of privilege. Paternalism, after all, is a way of casting oneself in a loving and familial role that also happens to exercise power over someone else, who is cast as subjugate whether they want to be or not.

But Cole makes the same mistake as Invisible Children, reducing an entire culture to his interactions with it and a few easy stereotypes, a monolithic mass to be judged and maybe even solved. Not all Western involvement in Africa is driven by the "White Savior Industrial Complex" -- just as there are capable African leaders, so are there responsible Western aid workers -- and some of it has been remarkably productive. Criticism of Kony 2012's subtle paternalism, after all, has so far mostly come from American development workers in Africa. It's hard to find a group of Westerners more conscious of colonialism and its ugly legacies. The story of Western-African relations is bigger than colonialism, just as it's bigger than Invisible Children's misguided quest. Resentment doesn't create any more solutions than does arrogance.

Update, 2:30pm: Cole responds, "Wrong!" to my statement that "Criticism of Kony 2012 has so far mostly come from American development workers in Africa." He links to a post aggregating several African reactions to the campaign. Surely we can agree that many Western aid workers in Africa have been critical of Kony 2012 and are thus probably not motivated by the "White Savior Industrial Complex."

"I'm an American, critiquing from within," Cole added, later describing my post as a "Good critique of Kony2012 in the Atlantic, followed by a frightened repudiation of Teju Cole."